BLISS: String Quartet No. 1 in B-flat. Conversations for flute, oboe, violin, viola, and cello. String Quartet in A (1914). Maggini Quartet; Nicholas Daniel, oboe; Michael Cox, flute.
Naxos 8.557108 {DDD} TT: 64:01

Wonderful. For most of the twentieth century, one could best describe the British music scene as feudal. Great figures loomed over the landscape: Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Walton, Britten, and Tippett. One's eye naturally fastened on the high, lonely towers and tended to ignore the rest of the terrain. Of course, in Britain such things seemed to matter. The United States, both officially and unofficially, takes very little interest in its composers. I doubt most Americans even know the names of Walter Piston or Roger Sessions, let alone recognize something either wrote. We democratically ignore just about everybody, though we may take a sporting interest in how Our Guys measure up against the furriners. Beginning with Parry, at any rate, Britain has produced at least as many very good, perhaps even great, composers as anyone else. Elgar tended to block out Parry. Vaughan Williams blotted out just about everybody else over most of his long lifetime: Boughton, Bax, Holbrooke, Grainger, Brian, and (excepting one piece) Holst. Walton crowded out Lambert, Rubbra, Foulds, Gurney, Warlock, Finzi, Bliss, Howells, and Moeran. Britten became in his lifetime, of course, The Greatest English Composer Since Purcell and accept no substitutes. It never seems to occur to people that King of the Mountain is not a particularly interesting game. Even if you've seen Everest, Mount McKinley should still impress you.

Bliss will probably never garner a large number of admirers. He's not hard in the way that Carter is, for example, but he lacks the vulgarity of most great composers. Some of the fans he has, however, command respect. He early on attracted the support of Elgar, who commissioned the Colour Symphony from him. In later life, he won a strong advocate in Britten. Although he succeeded Bax as Master of the Queen's Music, his most promising years ran from the Twenties to just after World War II. He also suffered from a number of creative silences. In the Twenties, people considered him a young Turk, but his radicalism lay largely on the surface. His soul was deep down a Romantic one and his language, with rare exceptions (more like outbursts), harkened back to the nineteenth century. One sees this most clearly in the concerti: the almost-famous one for piano recalls Liszt and Tchaikovsky, while the violin and cello concerti evoke the time of Elgar.

Bliss at his consistent best (ignoring masterpieces like Morning Heroes and the Music for Strings) I find in the chamber music, too little known, so all praise to Naxos for making this stuff available. Of the items here, I've heard before only the String Quartet No. 1. Bliss wrote it in the early Forties during a short two-year stay in the U. S. The quartet, the first movement especially, shows him at his Romantic best. It typifies his "mature" idiom. If you like the piano concerto, odds are you'll like the quartet. The introduction – unusual (though definitely tonal) chords moving along in unusual ways - and the transition to the main matter of the allegro is not only gorgeous string writing, but a subtle bit of composing. The movement in general quickly builds to a rage, rages to a kind of triumph, and then winds down to a mood of acceptance, using the material of the opening. However, the emotions are more fluid and thus more ambiguous than such a description implies. The second-movement scherzo plays neat games with a main rhythmic idea derived probably from American jazz. The trio lopes along in 7 beats to the measure. The form's a bit unusual, in that the trio reappears at the very end, pesante. An alert listener will probably ask what it means. The emotions never hit you straightforwardly, since they seem to continually morph into something else. The entire movement has the refinement (though not the idiom or awesome inspiration) of Ravel. I'm shallow enough to consider it my favorite of the four. The slow movement has its gorgeous singing moments, but compared to the others it doesn't hold together. It mostly just goes by. The finale, however, makes up for any flag in energy. It runs on the same high-octane fuel as the scherzo of the Ravel quartet.

Conversations for flute, oboe, and string trio comes from the Twenties, perhaps his most consistently experimental period. Unusually for Bliss, it shows the influence of Stravinsky, especially L'Histoire, as well as (more usual for Bliss) Ravel. However, you have only to compare it to Walton's Façade to see its deep conservatism. Basically, Ravel wins out. The first movement, "The Committee Meeting," is the quirkiest of the set, with the instruments all going so much their own way, you begin to wonder how the composer maintains a steady pulse. "The Committee Meeting" leads you to expect a jeu d'esprit, but the deeply-felt second movement, "In the Wood," dashes that. The work becomes an exquisite set of miniatures, in the way of Debussy and Ravel (you may even hear a bit of "Golliwog's Cakewalk" in the "Scherzando: In the Ballroom"). "Soliloquy" belongs to Bliss's beloved cor anglais, featured in so much of his chamber music, all by itself, singing not only poetically but coherently . The finale, "In the Tube at Oxford Circus," alternates Stravinsky's L'Histoire with lyrical Ravel as well as with bouncy Debussian proto-jazz. The whole suite is a valentine to France.

Bliss composed the String Quartet in A in 1915, while he served in World War I (demobbed in 1919, he fought through almost all of it, and his brother Kennard died in action). He withdrew most of his early work, this piece among them. I've collected Bliss since the Sixties, and I didn't know even of this piece. The maturity of its craft strikes the listener right away. Emotionally, it sings nostalgically, as Gurney and Rupert Brooke did, "of Severn meadows." There's a bit of Vaughan Williams, a lot of Elgar, and an "Irish" pastoralism, anticipating the final quartet of E. J. Moeran, written almost four decades later. The finale evokes the first movement of the Ravel quartet. But the whole brims over with something heartfelt and beautiful. Why Bliss withdrew it, I have no idea. Composers aren't always the best judges of their own stuff.

It's obvious that the Maggini Quartet and its partners love these works. They play not only with no condescension at all, but with great relish. The disc makes for great Sunday listening: relaxed, civilized, and often moving.

S.G.S. (April 2003)